Wednesday, July 17, 2002 Print Edition, Page A14
The 2001 census holds few surprises. In 1961, Canadians 65 and older accounted for 7.6 per cent of the population. In 1981 the figure was 9.7 per cent; in 1996, 12.2 per cent. When Statistics Canada released the 2001 results yesterday -- that 13 per cent of us are over 65, and our median age has risen by more than two years since 1996 -- it merely confirmed that we are continuing to grow older as a nation.
As with all figures, you can parse them any way you want. If we are living longer as individuals, three cheers for that. It's better than dying younger, particularly since we are enjoying a healthier old age than our ancestors. If relatively fewer people are entering the work force, people who want or need to keep earning money may have more chance to stay on the job after 65. They may even be offered incentives to stay. What's more, since the number of those entering the work force (15 to 24 years old) is falling relative to the number of those leaving (55 to 64 years old) -- the ratio is 1.4 to 1, and may be 1 to 1 in a decade -- young people may have more opportunity to get the jobs they want.
At the same time, countries, like organizations, thrive on new blood. If we aren't having children in large enough numbers to build the future as Canadians, or aren't bringing in enough children through immigration, there is the danger of eventual atrophy. We may be living longer, but we all still die, and as we age and die we make greater use of our health services, which somebody has to pay for. As more people retire, and fewer people enter the work force, there are fewer people working whose taxes cover the costs of medicare and other public services. That has implications for the debate over public and private health care.
Fortunately, the Liberal government was smart enough to restructure the Canada Pension Plan in 1997 to keep contributions in line with payouts and prepare for the coming demographic shift. That has been an expensive proposition for Canadians currently on the job -- contributions have risen to more than 9 per cent of defined earnings, split evenly between employer and employee -- but, assuming the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board doesn't sink all our money into the next Bre-X or Enron, we should be able to retire with a public pension for decades to come.
Of more concern will be the retention of experienced workers. A Toronto-Dominion Bank report last year suggested the country should raise the retirement age to 67 to keep good people at work, rather than continue to offer workers incentives to leave early. The United States, under greater duress than Canada is, has already changed the retirement age to 67 for those born after 1960. But there are alternatives, most crucially the devotion of more public money to skills training.
Statscan's census figures tell a great many other tales. The birth rate of aboriginal Canadians exceeds that of other Canadians, to the point that Saskatoon, heavily aboriginal, is the country's youngest metropolitan area; for the same reason, the territories, unlike the provinces, are not seeing the median age of their residents rise. Quebec, despite its generous baby bonuses and, more recently, its enlightened support for child care, has tied with Nova Scotia as the province with the highest median age in the country: 38.8, compared with 37.6 for Canada as a whole. Atlantic Canada continues to lose many of its young to the rest of the country, unable to offer them the opportunities they seek.
There is much in these figures to ponder. Many of us may be staying around longer than expected to do so.